Flabbergasted on a Zoom call, “Nomadland” director Chloe Zhao accepted the Golden Globe for best director on Sunday night. Between gratitude and marveling over the historic moment, as the first person of Asian descent and second woman ever to win the prize, came a somber question.
Zhao was asked for her thoughts on increased violence against Asian American Pacific Islander communities in America, an abhorrent trend of hate crimes in the past months that only began to gain national media attention recently thanks to celebrity outcry and the social media reach of activists like Nobel prize nominee Amanda Nguyen.
“I sometimes feel like people with so much hate, maybe they just hate themselves,” Zhao pondered of recent attacks that have targeted elderly AAPI people and have largely been correlated to tensions over COVID-19 — specifically hateful rhetoric from the former Trump administration, which often referred to the global pandemic as “the China virus.”
Zhao said that “understanding and trying to see the world from the other person’s perspective is the only way we can survive as a species.”
Fostering that perspective for global audiences, as well as opening hearts and checkbooks, is exactly what Hollywood is being called on to do by nearly a dozen top creatives and activists that Variety spoke with.
“Entertainers reach and educate a different audience than civil rights advocates like us can,” said John C. Yang, president of the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, who recently spoke at a town hall for the agents and clients of Hollywood firm UTA.
“We would not have the same awareness without them speaking up. It’s also important to reach out to organizations like ours to learn more about the issue and speak about it in an educated way. Sometimes people are hesitant to say it because they might not do it exactly right, which leads to timidity or reluctance. For us, having these different voices speak out is better than silence.”
Bing Chen, a former YouTube executive and co-founder of the nonprofit collective Gold House, advised the town to take three steps: “The first one is listening and platforming, I think the second is continuing to invest in stories that both humanize and punctuate the AAPI diaspora, and then third is [creating] narratives that show how we can actually practically solve things.”
Many industry insiders noted the international impact of last year’s Black Lives Matter campaign, surrounding increased awareness and outrage nationawide over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“There’s absolutely no question that people are wising up to this [because of the events of the summer],” Chen explains. “And that reinforces that one community’s plight, or in this case success, will directly impact in a positive way, another community.”
Myths surrounding AAPI communities can lead to dead ends when it comes to allyship.
“I think it goes back to the model minority myth, that Asian Americans don’t need help,” said Dan Lin, CEO of the prolific production company Rideback. Set up at Universal Pictures, Lin is behind franchises like “The Lego Movie” and the top-grossing reboot of Stephen King’s “It.”
Lin pointed to reality series like HBO Max’s “House of Ho” and Netflix’s “Bling Empire” as perpetuating “a perception that Asian Americans are all wealthy and doing well. Unfortunately, that’s just a small minority, there are a lot of people out there struggling.”
Broadway treasure and Disney voice actor Lea Salonga said “silence is no longer an option. The Asian-Pacific Islander community has made significant contributions to the film industry as actors, producers, directors and writers, and now our people are being attacked.”
Content companies and corporate giants broke their own silence in succession — some faster than others — following social media cries from the likes of Olivia Munn, Bowen Yang, Daniel Dae Kim, and Daniel Wu.
Netflix, HBO Max, Universal and NBC Entertainment, ViacomCBS and more sent Tweets and messages of support standing with their AAPI talent and colleagues, rallying around the hashtag #StopAAPI hate. Guilds including the DGA and SAG-AFTRA released condemnations of the hate crimes, with the latter recording a PSA that featured Lucy Liu, Iqbal Theba, Ken Jeong, and Carrie Ann Inaba.
But the perhaps lower visibility of Asian Americans, who account for fewer than 6% of the U.S. population, may have contributed to what some see as a late response to hate crimes that have been mounting over the course of months.
“We need a coalition of allies in all aspects of this industry that allows Asian American stories to be told authentically so we can reexamine our implicit bias and see past each other’s skin color, race, gender, or sexual orientation, and be seen as human,” said “The Good Place” star Manny Jacinto. “But don’t get me wrong, a coalition of allies that can help bring to justice the cowards who commit or support acts of violence and racism would be f–king fantastic, too.”
As with any conversation about equity in show business, “cosmetic” approaches to inclusion do not pass muster — if you need any proof, look at the response to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s pledge to improve after it was revealed they have not had a Black member in over two decades.
The way Hollywood can show up for AAPI people is to sink money into those motivated to portray the communities accurately, and also those that serve them.
“There is an incredible need to dimensionalize the portrayals of Asian Americans in this country, in terms of who gets to be a hero and who gets to be a romantic lead and all of those things. In some ways, the most important work we can do is actually in content and storytelling,” said Christy Haubegger, WarnerMedia’s chief enterprise inclusion officer and head of marketing and communications.
Jeremiah Abraham, producer of films including “Yellow Rose” and “Lingua Franca” and the founder of Tremendous Communications, put it simply: “We don’t want sympathy. We want support in two ways: money and opportunity. Give us equal pay. Give us equal opportunity and invest in our communities. Not just on stage or behind the camera, but at every level.”
Lin, whose Rideback offices are located in the heart of Los Angeles’ historic Filipinotown, says the community and the media should take cues from Black Lives Matter on amplifying a message of investment in not just justice, but the AAPI economy.
“Frankly, the Black community has been much better about being vocal when things like this happen. The Asian mentality is more about taking it on your chin, it’s a cultural difference of not speaking up that causes some of this,” he said. “There are a lot of great Asian American businesses that have been doing great things during this time.. Not only helping to sustain their businesses, but a lot have been giving back to the community and helping first responders. This work should be highlighted. Otherwise a lot of hate goes out there as a result.”
The executive pointed to Los Angeles spots like Filipinotown’s HiFi Kitchen, the farm-to-table eatery Porridge + Puffs, and Boba Guys, located at Rideback’s outfit (which is nicknamed “the ranch”).
For members of the entertainment community or the average citizen, the AAAJ’s Yang said not to count out old-fashioned volunteering as a form of investment.
“Engage in your local community, they are looking for support. Some of them are doing the very hard work on the ground. in Oakland right now, there are groups that are providing escort services to grocery stores or shop for them. There are groups providing wraparound services, where victims have places to go for health and mental health services. There are other groups having conversations, difficult ones, that are cross-racial,” he said.
Perhaps the most potent form of support Hollywood can bring the AAPI community is in challenging and expanding its own biases in how they are seen.
“We are asking producers, directors, and writers to cast our actors to play characters of all types – we can just as easily fix a car as treat a heart attack, and we can just as easily fail a test as pass one,” said a recent statement from the Writers Guild of America West’s Asian American writers committee.
According to last year’s UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report, only 4.8% of all acting roles in films went to people of Asian descent in 2018. The overwhelming majority of these roles are immigrant characters.
“We are asking members of the general public to support programming that is created by and starring AAPI artists and to hold production companies and creators accountable for their representation of AAPI on screen,” the committee concluded.
“We may not be able to undo the racist policies that prevented AAPI from immigrating to this country, kept us from buying property, or forced us into internment camps, but we can begin to rewrite the narrative to honor our role in the American story.”